Ávila owes its existence to two things: war and religion.
War because the interminable conflict between the Christians of the north and the Moorish invaders resulted in the astonishing walls ringing the old city that we see today.
Religion because Santa Teresa was from Ávila. To say she left her mark on the city is an understatement. More of her later…
But first, the walls, Ávila’s glory. They’re a UNESCO World Heritage site and simply unique, stretching for 2.5 kilometres, in an unbroken circle around the medieval town.
They’re so perfectly preserved, they look like the kind of battlements you’d see in a Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale. You half expect to encounter El Cid (or at least Charlton Heston as El Cid) cantering by on a white horse.
The bald statistics: the walls are 12 metres high, three metres wide and contain 87 watchtowers.
They give you all those figures on the audio guide as you walk the battlements. But they don’t really convey the scale, the stupendous labour that must have been involved in building something this massive, using nothing more human sweat plus medieval tools and construction techniques.
When work began, the wars between Moors and Christians had virtually depopulated the area around Ávila. It was 11th century bandit country. The walled city was intended as a statement; that the Christians were back in charge, and they were there to stay. What we see today is pretty much how the walls looked when work was completed in the 14th century.
You can walk two-thirds of the way round, with great views across the town and out into the countryside beyond. Seeing them at night is a must; the walls are floodlit and look impossibly romantic. Equally romantic are the extra titles Ávila acquired from a succession of Castilian kings; Ávila de los Caballeros (Ávila of the Knights), Ávila del Rey (of the King) and Ávila de los Leales (of the Loyalists). Game of Thrones, eat your heart out.
In those dangerous days, even the churches had to do duty as part of the defences; the apse of Ávila Cathedral is integrated into the city wall itself.
From the outside, the cathedral is grim and imposing. Inside though, it’s all light and air from the huge windows high up in the lofty nave.
Walk towards the altar, in the older Romanesque part of the church, and see how the stone is naturally stained red. It’s built with piedra sangrante (bloodstone) and the visual effect is startling. I’ve never seen a church quite like it.
There’s a wide ambulatory walk that takes you round the back of the altar and into the apse that forms part of the city defences; notice how thick the walls are around the windows. Some medieval architect clearly wasn’t taking any chances.
The cathedral is by no means the only church in Ávila. In fact, wherever you go, you’re never very far from an altar. There are Basilicas, Ermitas, Santuarios, Conventos, Monasterios and common or garden Iglesias (churches). The town isn’t known as the city of stones and saints for nothing.
And the main reason for that is Santa Teresa, whom we came across briefly at the start of this post. She was a local girl, born in 1515, who became a nun, a mystic, founder of a religious order, and finally perhaps the most important female saint in the Catholic church.
Teresa was obsessed with religion abnormally early in life. The story goes that aged just seven, she set off with her brother to convert the Moors to Christianity and suffer martyrdom if necessary. Fortunately for her, an uncle spotted the pair as they were leaving the city and young Teresa and Rodrigo were brought back home. A monument at Los Cuatro Postes outside Ávila marks the spot where Teresa was intercepted. Running away to be a martyr is not something most kids did, even then.
Her influence on Ávila is everywhere, from the convent built over her birthplace, to the Convento de San José – the first of the more fundamental Discalced (Descalzos, literally shoeless) order she founded – to the Fiestas de Santa Teresa held in Ávila every October.
Even the local speciality, yemas, is named after her, though you suspect Teresa herself would have frowned on such fripperies. Las Yemas de Santa Teresa are made from egg yolks and sugar; they’re tooth-achingly sweet and famous all over Spain.
The other specialities of Ávila by the way, are Chuletón de Ávila, a monster T-bone steak which you’ll find on menus everywhere in Spain, but especially here. (Tip: to avoid meat overload, ask to share one)
And beans. Perhaps not the most glamorous dish on a menu, but Judías del Barco de Ávila are a typical winter stew, cooked with chorizo and morcilla (black pudding) and maybe pancetta and a pig’s ear. The kind of food to put warmth into your bones. They need it round here. Winters are bloody cold hereabouts, partly because, at over 1,100 metres Ávila is the highest provincial capital in Spain. January temperatures average a distinctly chilly 3 degrees Celsius. Not great weather for tourism, though the walls do apparently look amazing in the snow.
By way of a footnote, Santa Teresa isn’t the only religious figure with big Ávila connections. Torquemada, best known as the head of the Spanish Inquisition and all-round religious fanatic, died and was buried in Ávila in 1498. He didn’t get to spend eternity in peace though; his bones were dug up and burned in 1832. You can’t help feeling it couldn’t have happened to a nicer bloke….
© Guy Pelham 2018